How to Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making from Across Australia
By Iain McIntyre
Publisher: PM Press; 2nd edition (October 15, 2013)
Book Review by David Cox
Australia’s last election placed right-wing Prime Minister Tony Abbot into power. Official policies of racism and intolerance such as forcing boats carrying asylum seekers away from Australia toward Indonesia are the norm. The new neoliberal regime of Abbot does not however represent the political or economic interests of the majority of the Australian population. The big end of town are rewarded, everyone else has to suck it up, and as the band Midnight Oil once put it “The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get the Picture”.
A new book by Iain McIntyre, How to Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making from Across Australia comes at a good time.
McIntyre’s book adopts for most of its pages a chronological timeline structure, listing in order a series of historical events of protest, resistance and challenge to power and authority that has always been at the heart of the Australian body politic.
Somebody I worked with in Melbourne back in 1986 put it to me thus; “In Australia, you are either a tram conductor or you are a passenger”. Simplistic perhaps, but a kernel of truth resides in this appraisal of the nature of post-colonial official/unofficial power relations in this once very British and now increasingly independent of Asian countries. I never wore a uniform, but I know what it means to see the world in terms of someone possibly having a rulebook in their pocket at any given time to judge you with. It creates a sense of the tram-conductor-or-not-one in yourself, and this is something I think about a lot now that I live in the USA where a different kind of sense of self prevails.
Australia has different kind of spirit of individualism than that which defines the typical American sense we might say of personal entitlement. The American approach can be said to be born of a relationship to an abstraction: the Republic. Australia has yet to achieve a Republic . No revolution has taken place yet. Instead, the once global British colonial powers have given over to global corporate and local parliamentary structures at once vaguely representational yet simultaneously almost completely non-inclusive. The Queen is a symbolic figurehead as the head of state, a distant echo of the Commonwealth legacy. Australia is indeed in a strange place today. The “pursuit of happiness” for example, has yet to be made into something the Australian people can lay a formal claim to as in the US, though informally they do it every day with gusto.
Democracy in Australia, if we are honest, as in the USA, has yet to mean (if it ever did) as it does in Brazil for example, that the population has a direct say in how it is governed. Power and authority, it is a truism to say, rest with those, now more than ever, who represent corporate interests. Powerful and increasingly mercurial neoliberal policies define the body politic in ways that render the population with the sense that their expected role in the eyes of the rulers is simply to consume, to passively ‘live as if they were free’ as Zizek sometimes puts it. In the vacuum created by this gulf have emerged the voices of protest and creative dissent.
Coalitions form among allies and sometimes unlikely bedfellows alike: trades union, students, environmentalists, aboriginal leaders, women, gay and lesbian groups, asylum seekers, animal rights activists, anarchists, artists. The list goes on. At the core of much protest is a uniquely Australian spirit of play. The prank or the ‘piss-take’ as an Australian is likely to call it, is often at the center of the radical gesture.
McIntyre’s book is replete with protest graphics of every description: posters, flyers, ‘zines, graffiti. Priceless black and white photos of culture-jammed billboards, and stenciled pavements. For a while in the mid 1990s, when I was making my film “Otherzone” on the streets of Melbourne, the city seems to the world capital for political street art and was reported as such. There are street logos from Melbourne in the book but also from every other Australian city – some absolute gems. “We’ll Keep You Pestered” being one – a detournment made possible with a single letter ‘e’ as “Postered” was the original word; billboard companies were promoting themselves!. There are hundreds of anecdotes, and interviews with many of those involved in the tens of thousands of struggles against injustice since Federation and prior.
I was particularly interested in the history between 1973 and 2005, the period of my life in Australia, most of it Melbourne, and deeply touched to see so many familiar images of posters and flyers and ‘zines and graffiti from the suburbs and various share houses I’d lived in during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Condom Man” for example, a poster that dominated the kitchens of many a student share house in Fitzroy in the late 1980s. A man of color, on Skull Island, decked out in the superhero garb of the Phantom (an Australian comic book superhero) declaring: “Don’t be Shame, Be Game – Use Condoms!”.
One of the greatest prankster culture jammer groups were formed, at least in part by a group of professional doctors, who formed BUGAUP to deface cigarette smoking billboards. dI wrote about this in part in my own book “Sign Wars: the Culture Jammers Strike Back” in 2010.
There are photos of the anti-nuclear warship actions of the ‘80s, events I also remember well, as well as images from the many environmental struggles such as the Tasmanian anti-woodchipping protests and the anti-uranium mining protests of the 1980s and 1990s. Australia is the size of the USA but with roughly the population of London. So much land, so many resources, an Aboriginal population who have yet to come anywhere close to genuine land rights.
The minute you land in Australia you are made aware of divisions and the struggles to find common cause have found expression in so many gestures of creative solidarity. Its on the walls of the streets. The posters of the houses. The expressions and ideas people talk about in the cities and street corners. It’s in the air. No official policies can undo this, or take steps to outlaw it. Like the ‘zero tolerance’ policies taken in the mid 2000s against graffiti in Melbourne for example, only one year after an official policy to absorb the graffiti via programs and other gestures. Graffiti and Melbourne are part of each other.
There is coverage of the S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. As had happened in Seattle with the WTF the year prior, on November 11 2000 a massive protest brought the WEF to a complete standstill before two days later, with state backing, an enormous police crackdown brutally and violently suppressed it. It was never properly reported by the mainstream press, for obvious reasons. A classic piece of graffiti from the event says it all: “you can’t eat money”. I remember a cold wind blew up Spencer street that first day and someone had put baby shampoo in the hideously vulgar Romanesque Vegas-style fountains of the Crown Casino where the event was being hosted. Amidst the chants and the drums and the police sirens, the protest foam rose upward spiraling into the Melbourne sky.
Classic Culture Jams are shown in the book like the “SquatSpace” Abandoned UnrealEstate Offices set up in downtown Newcastle, NSW. These looked exactly like those of regular real estate agents, only were filled with available abounded buildings around Newcastle, New South Wales where people might find totally free housing. This was during the “This is Not Art” events held in Newcastle in the late 1990s and early 2000s which were hotbeds of political and artistic activity for Australians from every city at the time. Would that there such a service in San Francisco today.
The Antipodean chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are represented via interview. Interviewed also is culture-jammer-turned TV-host John Saffran whose onscreen antics with his program Music Jamboree, a bitingly satirical look at the unfair and unscrupulous realities of the Australian commercial music industry, have blown the minds of many an Aussie tube-entranced suburbanite. Warming my heart is a section on the Aussie Occupy movement, about which I knew very little since the movement started several years ago.
Page after page of this remarkable book is filled with extraordinary stories of students, union workers, ordinary people engaged in political life that has always defined Australia as a country of resistance. What is best about the book though, is that its strident and forthright timeline format suggests not a dry, cut out academic ‘overview’ or some distanced and lofty anecdotal approach, but a continuum. The book is saying in effect: “These crucial things have happened. Australia is a democracy and its people resist attempts to silence their voices and their will at every opportunity…. and will CONTINUE to do so….”